An estimated 20 percent of the trash that ends up in landfills is food. One way to reduce food waste is to compost your kitchen scraps.
On Thursday, a group of compost enthusiasts will gather at Rhode Island College to discuss the current state of composting and new state regulations, which they hope will provide a boost to their industry.
Every couple of weeks I take my kitchen scraps to Michael Bradlee, who runs a neighborhood composting program in Providence’s Smith Hill neighborhood. It’s a free service and more than 50 households participate.
“So we have what’s called a bucket swap in which they drop off a filled bucket with food scraps, pick up a fresh bucket and take it home, bring it here at their convenience,” said Bradlee. “It’s self-serve. So it’s 24/7.”
Bradlee hauls the buckets to the backyard, where he empties them into large green trash cans. He’s retrofitted the cans for composting. Inside, stainless steel tubes allow air to flow through the pile and help breakdown the food.
“You can see some of the food scraps that are in their as well as napkins, paper bags,” Bradlee said as he plunged a long stick into the bin to mix up the compost.
This is one of eight composting hubs run by different groups all over Providence. The city and the Southside Community Land Trust helped jumpstart these residential composting sites with a variance from existing composting regulations. Bradlee’s special setup allows him to safely compost even meat and cheese.
“The meat scraps provide a lot of nitrogen and nitrogen provides a lot of energy in the form of heat,” said Bradlee.
Even during the coldest days of winter, most of his compost bins will be hot with temperatures between 90 and 120 degrees. That means microbes are doing their job turning food scraps into soil. Those hot temperatures also keep rats and other pests away.
Greg Gerritt with the Environment Council of Rhode Island said neighborhood composters like Bradlee provide proof that composting can be done well, without the unpleasant smell of rotting food. He expects more composting operations to pop up once the State Department of Environmental Management revises compost regulations (link to proposed rules).
“With the new regulations, somebody on a block could say ‘Okay, I’m going to compost food scraps for everybody in the neighborhood,’ and could just set up in their backyard and do that now and they would be perfectly legal,” said Gerritt. “Whereas right now, I’m not allowed to take food scraps from my neighbor.”
If Gerritt wanted to compost his neighbor’s food scraps, he’d have to get a license from DEM and show engineering plans as if he were a major industrial composter. Gerritt and other environmental advocates say that’s unrealistic. The new regulations would do away with those burdensome requirements, if they gain approval. And they’d allow schools and community gardens to start composting.
“There’s a bunch of them sort of waiting in the wings waiting for these regulations to get passed.”
Krystal Noiseux is the education and outreach manager for Rhode Island Resource and Recovery Corporation, the agency that runs the state landfill. She knows of many schools and community gardens that want to compost. They’ve asked for help getting started.
“And it’s crazy, but we have to tell them that we’re unable to assist them, we’re unable to give them the free educational program to help them get started,” said Noiseux, “because, technically speaking, you know, the regulations don’t allow them.”
As of this year, state law requires large institutions, such as universities and hospitals, that produce more than 104 tons of food waste per year to compost their food waste at a licensed facility, but only if they can find one within 15 miles.
There’s currently just one commercial food composter in the state: Earth Care Farm in Charlestown. That’s where Leo Pollock takes food waste he’s collected. He co-founded the company The Compost Plant, a pick-up service with 50 commercial clients, from “hospitals, universities, corporate campuses, you know all the way down to smaller coffee shops and small restaurants,” said Pollock.
Pollock said the changes Rhode Island is considering, including new regulations for anaerobic digesters, will attract new industrial composters. Two anaerobic digestion facilities are being planned in Johnston. Pollock and his business partner hope to one day open their own composting facility. He thinks the new regulations will provide a clear picture for how businesses like his can move forward.
“That’s true for us and I do think that’s true for a number of community efforts that in the past were in a little bit of this gray area,” said Pollock. “Is what they are doing legal? Would DEM enforce that? And so I do hope that they move forward as quickly as possible. I think the interest is there and the policy has lagged behind.”
Environmental officials have yet to approve the new composting regulations, but they’re expected to do that in the next few months. Those regulations won’t allow small operators like Michael Bradlee to compost meat and dairy, unless they get a variance.